Why Are Capers So Salty?

Published Categorized as Food
Why are capers so salty?

You’ve seen them in Italian, Greek, Spanish, and Mediterranean restaurants. They go in salads, pasta dishes, seafood, and poultry. With their distinct salty and tangy taste, capers are a great ingredient for your day to day cooking.

If you’ve ever wondered why capers are so salty, where they come from in the first place, and what recipes they’re best for, this post is going to satisfy your culinary curiosity.

Capers are the green, unripe flower buds of the caper bush (Capparis spinosa in Latin). The caper bush is a plant that’s native to almost all Mediterranean countries and mostly grown in Italy, Spain, Greence, and Morocco. Its fruit is used as seasoning (when dried) and as an ingredient (when pickled) in day to day cooking by people from these nations.

Sold in most grocery stores, pickled capers are a common ingredient for home cooks. The salty and tangy taste of pickled capers comes from the salty vinegar brine they’re canned in. The brine helps to preserve the fresh capers for long periods of time.

I don’t know about you, but I love the taste and smell of capers. They’re like tiny green pockets of lemon juice and sea salt, ready to burst with texture and flavor when you bite into them.

Capers vs. Caperberries

Capers vs caperberries
Compared to caperberries, capers are considerably smaller

Head to the grocery store or Italian deli, and you’re probably going to see two types of jarred capers on the shelves: big capers and small capers. What’s the difference?

The most popular kind of capers, also called nonpareils, are the unopened buds of the caper bush. They are very small, usually not bigger than 7 mm in diameter, and are sold pickled in tall and thin glass jars.

Bigger in size and milder in taste, caperberries are the fruit of the caper bush. Caperberries grow after the caper bush has flowered and the petals have peppered on the ground. About the size of an olive, each caperberry contains hundreds of tiny seeds and comes with a distinct pungent smell as it contains similar compounds as mustard, radish, and wasabi.

Where to Buy Capers & Caperberries?

If you live in the U.S., Canada, or Europe, you’ll find pickled capers in almost most supermarkets (incl. Walmart, Albertsons, and Trader Joe’s) and grocery stores. Look for them somewhere near the aisles with jarred produce and/or Mediterranean food. They’re often placed on the same shelves as dried pasta, tomato sauce, and jarred olives.

Curiously enough, a place where you’ll also find jarred capers in the U.S. and Canada are higher-end liquor stores. They tend to carry them because capers are often added to Martinis and other cocktails.

How Do You Use Capers in Recipes?

The salty and tangy taste of capers makes them a great ingredient for any recipe to which you’d like to add salt and acidity.

Add capers as garnish to beef carpaccio or use them as an ingredient for Spaghetti alla Puttanesca, Chicken Piccata, New York-style Bagel and Lox, Tuna Salad, or Lemon-Caper Butter Sauce for seafood.

I also like to sprinkle capers on top of grilled salmon, lemon chicken, and Gazpacho soup (or any cold tomato soup, for that matter).

Can Capers Be Cooked?

You can make fried capers and add them to any fresh or cooked dish. To make fried capers, preheat a skillet on high temperature, add extra-virgin olive oil, and sauté the capers until they become crispy and brownish.

Capers can be cooked to make piccata sauce. In a skillet on medium-high heat, simmer chicken broth, fresh lemon juice and zest, and capers until they reduce to a concentrated and savory sauce. Pour the sauce on top of fried chicken breasts.

Make Pickled Capers Less Salty

There is a way to make pickled capers less salty before adding them to a salad or soup. Put the capers in a sieve and wash them under running water for 15-20 seconds. Doing so will wash away some of the brine, making their taste noticeably milder.

This is a trick that they teach in culinary schools and that most professional chefs do when using pickled capers as an ingredient in their food.

Do Pickled Capers Go Bad?

As with any pickled product, capers are best eaten before their “best by” date. Once you’ve opened the capers, you can keep them in the fridge for up to 1 year. Before consuming them, check their texture, aroma, and color to make sure that they haven’t gone bad.

Pickling is a way to preserve food for long periods of time. This is why capers can be consumed after the “best by” date indicated on the package. However, their smell, taste, and texture will continually deteriorate the longer after the “best by” date they’re kept.

Are Capers Good for You?

Jarred capers are good for you when eaten in moderation. Because of the brine that’s used to pickle them, they contain a high amount of sodium. Just one tablespoon of capers carries 200 mg of sodium, which is about 9% of the recommended daily intake.

Capers are the highest dietary source of quercetin, an antioxidant known for its ability to fight inflammation. Researchers have found a number of health benefits of capers, including lowering blood sugar, protection against liver damage, and even against cognitive impairment.

In Conclusion

Capers are the unripe flower buds of the caper bush, whereas caperberries are the fruit that grows after the flowers have blossomed and the petals have peppered the ground.

Capers are almost never sold ripe and, as with most olives, you wouldn’t recognize their taste if they were. Instead, they are pickled in salty brine and sold jarred in most supermarkets, grocery stores, and some higher-end liquor stores.

The salty and tangy taste of capers and caperberries comes not from the fruit, but from the brine. That taste is what makes capers an excellent ingredient for recipes that favor salt, especially salads (like Tuna Salad) and cold soups (like Gazpacho). If you prefer your capers less salty, wash them for 15-20 seconds in a sieve under running water.

By Jim Stonos

When Jim isn't in the kitchen, he is usually spending time with family and friends, and working with the HCW editorial team to answer the questions he used to ask himself back when he was learning the ropes of cooking.